Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bookshelf: The Social History of Bourbon

My father is a Kentucky Colonel. It is with deep regret that I understand this bluegrass mantel is not hereditary, that if I wish to attain that rank, I must do so on my own paltry merits. I try in other ways to promote the Commonwealth, most notably by pouring for my guests that amber fruitage of Kentucky corn so praised among the world's drinking classes. Like my grandfather before me, I drink bourbon.

Before my lips ever touched homemade liquor, I knew the aroma and taste of Kentucky bourbon. The copper-topped dry sink at which my grandfather mixed his nightly Manhattans now stands in my living room, where it never truly runs dry. As a child, when I grew tall enough to see over its top, I would occasionally snag a boozy cherry while he wasn’t looking. I am convinced that he doubled up cherries in his drink because he knew exactly what I was doing.

So it is with pleasure that I note that the University Press of Kentucky has re-released Gerald Carson’s 1963 book The Social History of Bourbon. If I didn’t already keep a first edition on my desk, I’d say this was cause to raise a glass.

This isn’t a review. This is just a few words about a book I really like. I admit right up front that in many places, it reads like a promotional piece for the distilleries themselves. So be it. Caveat lector. In addition to tracing the origins and trajectory of our native spirit, it’s got moonshine, applejack, Prohibition, and Civil War doctors drinking all the spirits they could seize under the guise of medical need. It goes into the families and personalities of bourbon’s early history and does so with humor at turns both subtle and broad.

Carson, like so many before and after him, can’t seem to talk about this most famous of Kentucky beverages without turning a bit poetic. Consider the following passage:
The judgment of some of the old taste-testers bordered upon the miraculous. They have been known to name the country, the exact valley, the creek bottom, in which an aromatic bourbon was made. What they knew came not out of books but out of bottles.
What they knew came not out of books but out of bottles. I love this line. It raises these old taste-testers from mere men who drink too much to connoisseurs of almost mythic stature.

I’ll raise a glass to the Kentucky Colonels tonight, but most especially to my father, who remains a man of almost mythic stature.

Goes well with:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday? Reorganize the Liquor Closet

Liquor is my business. Well, part of it, anyway. Writing is my real business, but liquor is one of my favorite topics.

I am also a bit of a completist. This means that it's not enough, for instance, to buy a single book on whiskey — I've got to own everything I can get my hands on about distillation from its earliest days to the most recent blogs, to go into the field, to spend time with distillers, to understand quite thoroughly how a still works, and to do sampling. Lots of lots of sampling.

Whiskey Forge back stock
The result? Bottles. Lots and lots of bottles. I think of them as my liquid library. If I merely want to enjoy a nice spirit straight up with no mixers or want to follow, adjust, or corrupt a recipe, it's a simple matter of going to the library, grabbing the bottles I need, and rolling up my sleeves.

But the library's not what it used to be.

We did our damnedest to drink down the liquor cabinets when it seemed like we were moving to Louisiana earlier this year. Our guiding principle was not to move open bottles — and no more than a dozen of the rarest samples would make the move. After ten months of having friends help us knock back the stock, we were down to about 200 bottles. Sounds like a lot, but many of them hold just a few ounces and I'm concentrating on finishing those to clear space for new stock.

Now that we're staying put in San Diego, we've been rebuilding, bit by bit, the liquid library. We've added more whiskeys, a lot more rums, some moonshine, strange bitter distillates from far-away places and, yes, even Scotch whisky for guests.

This morning, I put new shelving in one of our liquor closets to accommodate the growth. There are two booze closets in the house, plus a rum-laden bar cart and a copper-topped dry sink freighted with whiskey. It's not the ideal storage, but the closet shelves are away from direct sunlight and outside walls (light and condensation are the enemies of just about everything in a pristine state, including spirits and cork).

I'll never be able to fit all the books in one room, but one day, just maybe, I'll be able to do that with all the bottles.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mrs. Marshall's Liquid Air Ice Cream

Known as Mrs. Marshall to her tens of thousands of students, readers, and customers, Agnes B. Marshall is nearly forgotten these days. What a loss. In her heyday, the Victorian food maven was as much a household name as Anthony Bourdain, Julia Child, or — God help us — Guy Fieri is today.
An even more apt comparison might be Martha Stewart. Like Stewart, Mrs. Marshall opened an umbrella of business ventures — and seems to have excelled in them all. She ran a cookery school in London; sold fancy cookware; hawked a variety of compounds, essences, and syrups under her own label; and generally championed wholesome cookery in an era when toxically adulterated food was commonplace. She published two early books on ices (that is, ice creams, water ices, sorbets, bombes, etc.) and is known to have published recipes for making and using ice cream cones almost two decades before their supposed invention at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. [1]

Generations before today’s molecular gastonomists began deconstructing S’mores, lashing cocktails with smoked foam, and otherwise digging into the science of how food does what it does, she also seems to have been the first person to advocate mixing liquid air with ice cream ingredients to make nearly instant ice cream.
Persons scientifically inclined may perhaps like to amuse and instruct their friends as well as feed them when they invite them to the house. By the aid of liquid oxygen, for example each guest at a dinner party may make his or her own ice cream at the table by simply stirring with a spoon the ingredients of ice cream to which a few drops of liquid air has been added by the servant.
~ Mrs. Agnes B. Marshall
The Table (24 August, 1901)

Turns out that the recipe doesn’t quite work (more than “a few drops” is necessary to make ice cream at the table), but the idea was solid and — in absence of servants — has been reproduced in high school chemistry labs around the United States for decades. It’s exactly the sort of scientifically inspired experimentation that supposedly avant garde molecular gastronomists and molecular mixologists [2] are using to thrill and delight their customers in 2010.

In an essay included in a 1998 reprint of Marshall’s Book of Ices [2], Peter Barham conjectures that Marshall thought of table-made ice cream after seeing or hearing about the public lectures of chemist Sir James Dewar. Dewar was the first to liquefy nitrogen. As the 19th century drew to a close, he’d gotten better at producing it in quantities — though “liquid air” was still a rare curiosity by the time Marshall wrote about it. Dewar nonetheless made a series of popular demonstrations about the new substance. While the rest of his audiences may have been mesmerized by the white “fog” generated when liquid nitrogen is poured into water, Barham surmises that Marshall took inspiration in the frozen water left in the bowl. The Queen of Ice Cream had found a new subject.

Liquid air isn’t new. Nor is ice cream. Turns out that molecular gastronomy isn’t either. But they’re all worth digging into a little more.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm starting with the ice cream.


[1] Although wafers of various kinds have been made for centuries, ice cream vendors have been stuffing them with the cold stuff for more than 200 years, so they weren’t exactly new to Mrs. Marshall — but she did help popularize them. See Robin [credited as "Robert J."] Weir’s Essay An 1807 Ice Cream Cone: Discovery and Evidence.

[2] Robin Weir (ed) (1998) Mrs. Marshall: The Greatest Victorian Ice Cream Maker. With a Facsimile of The Book of Ices 1885. Syon House, Otley, W. Yorkshire.

[3] Their term. Not mine. See Darcy O’Neil’s An Introduction to Molecular Mixology for a straightforward discussion of molecular mixology at Art of Drink.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stranahan's: Making Me Wish I Were in Colorado Today

Here at the Whiskey Forge, we are great fans of Jess Graber and the work he's doing at Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. Really lovely whiskeys well worth seeking out. As I was about to head out the door, I caught a glimpse of a notice from the distillery on Facebook:
The SCW Triple Wood Snowflake. Just about 45 minutes until it's release. Very limited stock of about 140 bottles. Available ONLY in person at the distillery. On sale beginning at Noon today, September 15th. $85/bottle and a limit of 6 bottles per person. As with any other Snowflake. There's only so much of it and when it's gone, it's gone.
The sun is shining and it's gorgeous in San Diego's today, but right now I wish I were in Colorado to catch some of that ephemeral Snowflake on my tongue.

Tasting notes are on Stranahan's Facebook page here. Distillery site with contact info is here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Goat Cheese Ice Cream

I don’t eat strange food just for the hell of it or to geek out and lord over those with mere plebian tastes. “Oh, pish. Baby camel with a kala jeera gastrique topped with a smoked apricot foam? How very last month.” No, those guys are buffoons. I sometimes eat unusual and off-the-wall foods because they taste great. Or they might. Or I’m being polite to my hosts.

Cheese ice cream falls into the first category — or, at least, some of it does. My friend Chef Fritz Blank gave me a recipe for a fresh goat cheese ice cream back in the 90’s. Now, just hush before you spout off that it’s the nastiest thing you’ve ever heard of. You and I both know that’s not true.

Chef Fritz Blank
Though mild cheeses such as ricotta and mascarpone make subtle improvements to plain ices, goat cheese ratchets up the funk just a little bit — with great results. It's not even exotic any more. Local producers from Georgia to California make outstanding goat cheeses, but even in Kansas supermarkets, tubes of fresh chèvre are commonplace. If you want to get even funkier than goat, consider something like David Lebovitz’s Pear-Pecorino Ice Cream or Helado de Roquefort from Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table.

Faced with von Bremzen’s Roquefort ice cream, goat cheese seems downright pedestrian. Oh, but it’s not. Its flavors come in three distinct waves; at first, it seems like especially good vanilla ice cream, but as it warms in your mouth, it becomes something like rich, complex New York style cheesecake. Swallow and there’s a light but distinct goaty aftertaste. I love it.

Blank’s recipe is meant for a professional kitchen, so when I make it at home, I scale it down for a more manageable recipe that yields a little less than a quart. The scaled down version follows.

Goat Cheese Ice Cream
(Glace au Fromage-blanc de Chèvre)

550ml (about 19 oz) heavy cream*
160ml (about 5.5 oz) half-and-half*
4 egg yolks
170g (¾ cup) sugar
250g (about 4 oz) fresh white goat cheese
1 tsp vanilla extract

Heat the heavy cream and half-and-half in a stainless steel saucepan over medium heat without stirring. Look for small bubbles to form around the rim of the pan. As soon as a light film covers the surface of the mixture, remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, place the egg yolks, sugar, fresh goat cheese, and vanilla extract in a food processor and blend until smooth.
Stir the scalded cream into the goat cheese mixture, mix thoroughly, and chill.
Freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Blank notes that a few drops of syrup “made from balsamic vinegar reduced with raisins and dribbled over the top of each serving produces a memorable Sundae.” We've been known to top it with hot fudge sauce.

* A few words on the ingredients:

Half-and-half is, nominally, half cream and half milk in the United States. But that ain’t necessarily so. As Anne Mendelson explains in Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, it is a “term with no uniform meaning.” Practically, it refers to a light, creamy liquid with 10.5-18% milkfat, depending on the state and manufacturer. Richer than milk, not as rich as heavy cream. Since light cream can range from 18-30% milkfat, there may be some overlap between it and half-and-half. Experiment and substitute at your peril/discretion.

Heavy cream contains at least 36% milkfat, though, according to Mendelson, anything richer is rare.

Goes well with:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dreams of Salt and Honey

Salt, honey, Guinness, and chocolate
For decades, I’ve bought ice cream books: professional catalogs, technical manuals, and amateur how-to books from the 19th century, 20th century, and the latest offerings that cater to America’s increased love of bold flavors. They inform what goes on my table both at home and when I'm on the road. From cider ices in New England and cinnamon gelato in Amsterdam to Midwestern frozen custards laced with chunks of cherry pie, I've eaten my share of ice creams. Last week, I hit Scoops ice cream shop in Los Angeles. Their salt and honey ice cream is one of the best I’ve had in years.

Scoops has a few standard ice cream flavors in the case such as brown bread, but on any given day, you may also find Jim Beam and ricotta, Guinness and chocolate, white chocolate and Oreo, avocado and banana, pistachio and jasmine, and the straightforward Earl Grey.

Click to enlarge
A white board against one wall is scrawled in red and black suggestions for additional flavors from customers. The ideas range from earnest-seeming pleas (AVOCADO! and Sugar free for diabetics) through the intriguing (sweet potato, Cheddar/apple pie and — I'd like to see them pull it off — pad thai) to the merely nasty (cheeseburger: cold beef fat is particularly vile). Some that popped for me:
  • elderflower
  • green tea
  • mango-chile-lime
  • coconut-basil
  • IPA
  • ginger and Hennessey
  • Thai ice[d] tea
  • PBR
  • bacon
  • black licorice
  • jasmine-green apple
  • bacon-maple doughnut
I may pass on the sex and KFC original recipe flavors if they ever get made. Jackasses. Thai tea, though, is great as a sorbet drizzled with cream. An orphaned bottle of Thai tea syrup in the fridge got me thinking What the hell am I going to do with that? Make delicious dessert, that's what.

These days, even convenience stores carry the formerly exotic dulce de leche ice cream — but Jim Beam and ricotta or bacon-maple doughnut? I either need to make that kind of thing myself or hunt it down. Because I can’t just haul my ass to LA whenever I get a hankering for unusual ice cream, you know I’ll be tweaking salt and honey recipes.

Let me know if you've got a workable recipe for that, eh?

712 N Heliotrope Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 906-2649

There’s a Scoops website, but it’s less about the business than the art that rotates through. Better to check out Scoops' Yelp page for useful information about the ice cream itself.